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FAMILY LIFE

Children Deserve to Hear of Forebears

November 16, 1989|MIKE SPENCER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I recently overheard my 11-year-old bragging to a friend that my mother was such an artist in the kitchen that "she could cook a brick and make it taste great."

And that's true, except that he has no such firsthand knowledge. She died several years before he was born.

It struck me that this slim bit of family lore is one of the few things he does know about her. It also hit me that my older son, who knew her but briefly, operates in a slightly smaller vacuum, clouded by memories of an older, sickly and cranky woman.

Neither has a sense of the flesh, blood and soul of their grandmother, of a life full of great adversity and woefully few triumphs--or of the incredible courage and uncomplaining optimism with which she trudged through it all.

And that's my fault, because I've never taken the time to document it for them, either orally or in writing.

Not that there isn't any interest shown by either of them. To the contrary, there's nothing they enjoy more than those rare occasions when my brother and I get together and inevitably start talking about our family.

Unfortunately, those conversations are generally limited to the entertaining anecdotes of the true eccentrics who populated my mother's side.

Instead of talking about the widow cleaning the dentist's office at night so that her children could have their teeth cleaned, we'll talk about her younger brother, who was straight out of an old and bad joke.

That was the uncle who was sent to the store for bread when he was 14 and didn't come home for 30 years--and, as the punch line goes, brought rye instead of wheat.

Or, instead of recalling the struggles she faced feeding and clothing the three of us while our father lingered with cancer at a time when there was no insurance and little outside help, we'll talk about her older brother's wife.

That was the aunt who was a medical doctor, the one who lost her bearings in her 80s and spent all of her time in muumuus on the veranda of their huge home, gumming pears (she refused to wear her false teeth) and treating patients from the porch swing.

My aunt and uncle's home, incidentally, while as large as a small hotel, was off limits to everyone. No one was ever invited in, although we knew they had two grand pianos (neither my uncle nor aunt played) and spikes driven up through antique chairs, to discourage prowlers, I suppose, from ever getting comfortable.

Entertaining tales all for the boys, but hardly a hint of a history of a strength and a humanity that is their real heritage.

What sparked these musings--and a determination to remedy these particular shortcomings of mine--was a touching piece I read recently in the Cal State Long Beach newspaper by Christa Conway, daughter of Times society columnist Ann Conway.

"My last memories of my grandma are not good ones," Christa writes.

"I picture her in a hospital bed, tucked under the white sheets, with plastic tubes stuck in her nose and her mind nearly gone. She had Alzheimer's disease and I didn't like to visit her because I was afraid she would not recognize me.

"But Dorothy McGee Keller was not always that way. At one time, she loved to dance, and she spent Saturdays at the picture show; she dreamed about boys and pressed lavender sweet peas between the pages of her diary.

"Those sweet peas are still there, most of them, at least. Some are 75 years old and slightly pink around the edges. You see, a few months ago, I came across grandma's diary. And through it, I have come to know Dorothy--or Dorothie, as she liked to write it."

The diary covers a very short period, really, only four years, but they were incredibly significant years for the young woman who was to become Christa's grandma.

In it, Dorothy talks about her family, including an Irish immigrant father who, as the Irish put it, "drank, don't you know," of a mother struggling with the comings and goings of an alcoholic husband, of having to quit school to help support the family.

The diary ends with Dorothy meeting, dating and falling in love with the man who was to become Ann's father.

"My grandma's diary contains much more," Christa writes, "bits of poetry, yellowed newspaper clippings, pencil sketches and memories of moonlit hayrides . . . love letters from my grandpa," who died 10 years before she did.

"Grandma died six years ago and somehow I've always been afraid to visit her grave.

"But after peeking into her life--into her mind and her heart--she has become more like a friend to me, and I really want to say hello.

"I think she would like some fresh sweet peas. . . ."

I doubt that I am alone in being guilty of robbing my children of their history, but I think I have come up with a method for restoring it.

I've made an early New Year's resolution to begin an oral history project, to gather my family with a tape recorder and preserve more than just the odd warped limbs of our family tree.

It's a somewhat selfish project, I admit, partly designed to set a precedent so that maybe my grandchildren, if I ever have any, will know that I was a little more than the eccentric curmudgeon I show every sign of becoming.

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